No carts were available at the Carrefour grocery store, only a few stragglers at the front entrance that were either crippled or just passed up; because who wants to push a cart half a block when you can get one at the door? Not today. I doubled backed and rescued one of the castaways. Inside it was crazy. Carrefour was having a huge New Years Day sale that made Black Friday look tame. I suppose their weekend sale was perfectly timed with the first of the month. Unlike the states, where people seem broke on the first because their rent is due along with many other bills, in China today is payday. Most salaries are dished out in monthly installments, not weekly or bi-weekly as we’re used to. And people don’t pay rent here every month, most pay quarterly or bi-annually.
I visit Carrefour once a week to stock up on food and other necessities. It’s a two-story building with a grocery store on the first floor and a department store above where you can get almost anything. A ‘Report’ dedicated to this large grocery store is long overdue.
My first few visits to Carrefour were stressful and produced much anxiety. I just wasn’t prepared for the noise, the number of people, or the tactics required for actually gathering food. I’d leave exhausted, sweating from the winter clothes I didn’t need inside, and keeled over with a heavy Ikea bag to lug home. I dreaded going to Carrefour. Everything about it seemed awful.
The entrance is a wide and steep concrete ramp that leads up to carwash-style octopus cleaners, except they’re not blue and soft, they’re dingy, hard plastic and you have to fight your way through a slit opening to get inside. If you’re afraid of germs on a public door handle, this like getting the full body treatment if you’re not careful. The entrance foyer is flanked with official-looking people behind several different service counters. I’m not sure what they do, but it seems financial and large lines form from these service areas. It has the austerity of customer service or layaway. There are two ways to actually get into the store, a narrow path along the corral of check out lines, or up the long ramp to the 2nd floor, which deposits you into the electronics section with an empty grocery cart.
The scene inside is like a crowded subway car where everyone has a cart and they’re all shopping. One might think this scenario would produce anger or violence, I mean it certainly would in the states. I can just imagine impatient soccer mom’s wielding oversize carts around saying, “Excuse me! Your cart is in MY way.” That was my first problem -I was the impatient soccer mom, trying to bob and weave, and getting frustrated. But I quickly learned when to be aggressive and when to lay back and just flow with through the store with the sea of people. Below is a FIELD GUIDE that I should’ve been given upon first entering the store, it would read: “ADVICE TO WESTERNERS”
FRESH PRODUCE: First you must find the lone roll of plastic bags (this might take 10 minutes). And because there is only one roll, you must pull it like a careless toddler pulls toilet paper, getting your entire supply of vegetable bags in one go. Don’t bother sorting through piles of produce with all the Chinese people, their sorting and identification techniques are far superior and you’ll be left with bruised and blemished veggies and fruit.
Just watch one of them go through the miniature oranges, you’ll see no rhyme or reason why they choose one over another. Try it yourself and you’ll be disappointed with what you bring home. Your best bet is to stick with pre-packaged produce that the grocery store prepares. You’ll pay a little bit more money for a really perfect pair of spinney cucumbers because their hand picked by the best sorters, and 50 cents isn’t that much extra. Plus you can skip the line to weigh and price produce.
THE LINE TO WEIGH AND PRICE PRODUCE: Avoid this at all costs because it’s cutthroat. You’ll quickly learn that Chinese people cut in line, but it’s not the same as where you come from; a place where such blatantly unjust acts would be cause for verbal assault, or even violence. Here there are no managers to call, no customer service to soothe your temper. You just wait a little longer. It’s like “Oops, I guess I shouldn’t have looked at those apples for two seconds.” And the other guy is like “Ha, ha, foreigners are so slrrow and rlazy.” And everyone walks away happy. If you make it as far as the weigh machine, you’ll have to get into gear and start firing bags of fruit and veggies to the scale-lady, who is a teenager. Quickly hand each bag onto her scale, use both hands because it’s go time! She won’t look at you and wont touch anything in your basket. It’s kind of like interfacing with a human robot. She just weighs, bundles, stickers, and hands off. It will feel like the bottle return machine at Kroger with someone grabbing each one and crushing it with their hands before you. And no matter how fast you go, the ‘overload’ alarm will never sound.
PREPARED FOODS SECTION: This is worse than old country buffet, but equally fascinating. Lot’s of yelling happens here and you won’t be able to understand any of it. Just know they’re trying to sell stuff, even though you know that shouting out what can be imagined as “Get your greasy-boiled-spicy-pig’s-feet-liver-stomach-noodles. So tasty and delicious!” is no way to sell anything in a super market. But this where you’re wrong and the FIELD GUIDE is right; Carrefour has 50% of their staff loitering at every aisle and every corner to sell you something, by yelling. Avoid the prepared foods section, except to take photographs and send to your loved ones back home.
MEAT, FISH, AND POULTRY: This is very raw. The butcher shop is front and center, and while all of the land-animals have already been finished, it will be more than you’re used to seeing in the deli section back home. You’ll be tempted to buy one of the turtles for a pet, saving its life, but this is a bad idea. You won’t be so sympathetic to the carp because they’re carp and as Westerners we despise these fish for being gross and trying to get into our Great Lakes. With that said, same advice on the meat as the fruit and vegetables: go for the pre-packaged, unless you want to ladle through a pile of boneless chicken breasts. Also, don’t be alarmed when you see someone put a whole rack of ribs into their cart, unwrapped. Why waste a bag? You’ll also be impressed by how inexpensive meat is. What might cost you $11 dollars for boneless chicken breasts back home will only cost $1. It’s the same for beef and pork. At first you’ll be excited, and then a little nervous as you wonder why this price differential is so large. The FIELD GUIDE has no answer.
YOGURT AISLE: This is the one of the most happening spots of the whole grocery store. It just has that look and feel like something’s going on. There are big banners of yogurt-like Chinese models, eating yogurt, and feeling great about yogurt. You will also see what look like 60’s go-go dancer / anime pop star girls offering free samples of yogurt. They all wear brightly colored mini-skirt dresses, white leather boots, and microphone headsets, which project their voice x10 from a small speaker worn on their hip. They also wear medical facemasks. The go-go anime pop-star girls don’t work for Carrefour, they work for big-yogurt and are there to cut deals, like buy 5 get 1 free. The sample girls never turn off their hip-mounted loudspeakers even when having a conversation with a potential buyer, which really helps with the theme of yell-to-sell.
WINE AISLE: This is where they put the lowest-functioning aisle sellers. Chinese people don’t drink a lot of wine, so it’s basically a dead zone. The wine aisle seller will follow you but remain silent due to the language barrier. Once you make your selection they’ll mutter something and point to an adjacent bottle, which is a little more expensive. That’s it. That’s the wine aisle.
CHECK OUT LINE: This is where your ice cream will melt, so let it be the last thing you put in your cart before getting in line. Here you can observe a wide a cross section of Chinese people, short ones, tall ones, fat ones, old ones, every kind. It’s almost as varied as the ecology of Walmart shoppers, but fewer degenerates and outright wrong creations. You can observe the rising obesity epidemic among Chinese children here as well. The checkout line is almost as hurried as the line to weigh and price produce. There are no conveyor belts, just a little shelf to place your basket onto. This is where strategy counts. Of the three grocery vehicles: lone basket, cart that accommodates two baskets, and classic cart, the cart that is a frame for two baskets is ideal. Keep heavy items in one basket and light-fluffy-delicate things in the other. This will help ensure you get all the heavy stuff first because there is no time for sorting in the check out line. Unlike the States where the checkout ladies and gents seem deficiently slow or hopelessly depressed, the Carrefour workers are like black-jack dealers hopped up on Vegas oxygen. There is a manager that cycles through the check out lanes, but not to do overrides or price checks, it seems that this person’s job is to yell at the cashiers. You’d think that a public display of verbal abuse would be cause for protest amongst the sympathetic shoppers, but that’s just soft, western ideology. Quickly load your granny cart with the heavy stuff first, and then the light stuff on top. The granny cart is a nescessity for the 15-minute walk home. Don’t bother using a big shoulder bag or a backpack, use gravity and leverage to your advantage.